Las Vegas Sun

June 18, 2024


Behind the closed doors on C Street

The Family — which has counseled Sen. John Ensign — lives and prays as a fundamentalist group with power at the center of its agenda

The Author


Jeff Sharlet lived in The Family’s house in 2002. “The Family began with the idea that God does not work through churches but rather through those whom The Family calls the ‘New Chosen,’” he said during an interview on KNPR-FM’s public affairs show “State of Nevada.”

The Family

133 C Street S.E. is registered as a church and affiliated with a secretive Christian group known as The Family. It is the Washington home of several influential conservative politicians, including Sen. John Ensign of Nevada. Launch slideshow »

The scandal over Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign’s extramarital affair with an employee has renewed interest in a secretive fundamentalist Christian group known as The Family, with whom he lives when in Washington, D.C.

Ensign last month admitted to an affair with Cynthia Hampton, whose husband, Doug Hampton, was a top aide to Ensign and his best friend. After Doug Hampton asked The Family to intervene, members confronted Ensign at the group’s house on C Street in Washington.

On Wednesday, the author of a book about The Family was interviewed on KNPR-FM’s public affairs show “State of Nevada.” Author Jeff Sharlet, a contributing editor to Harper’s and Rolling Stone magazines, lived with The Family in early 2002. His book, “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power,” was published last year by HarperCollins.

The following is an account of the State of Nevada interview, conducted by host Dave Berns. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Dave Berns: Scandals involving John Ensign and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford placed a spotlight on The Family. The group’s town house in Washington is a former convent with a chapel and, according to federal tax records, is registered as a church. Tenants pay below market rent.

We asked Sharlet which is the bigger story: the sex scandals, or the public conversation about The Family.

Jeff Sharlet: The story begins with these scandals. The question is, do you make the bigger connection? The real issue is not who Ensign or Sanford sleep with, but the organizations with which they pursue their policies and the sources to which they turn for moral and religious authority.

I think that is starting to come out, particularly with Ensign, because we see the role The Family plays in the cover-up. Doug Hampton said The Family had a role in moving money around for the affair, which I think a lot of outsiders look at as hypocritical. Knowing The Family, I understand that that’s not hypocritical from its perspective — that it’s actually a form of doing God’s work.

Berns: Talk about the relationship between members of The Family — they are men, not women — and the role they play as a larger group.

Sharlet: The Family began with this idea that God does not work through churches but rather through those whom The Family calls the “New Chosen.” They believe they’re chosen by God. They can’t be expected to pray with the rest of us. They need to pray in private with people of equal status.

When you join one of these prayer groups, you give these men veto power over your life, over every aspect of your life. Wives involved with The Family have said, “In my husband’s life, his brothers come first, I come second.”

We saw that happening with the men Doug Hampton went to see. They were exercising veto power over Ensign’s life.

A lot of us might think that sounds fine, they were helping him stay on the straight and narrow. But when we look at the people exercising this veto power, in particular David Coe, who has been in the news as sort of working with Ensign, you have some really questionable moral authority.

Berns: Doug Hampton said that after members of The Family confronted Ensign, the senator wrote a letter saying he would end the relationship. Did that sound familiar to you?

Sharlet: Absolutely. I start my book out with the story of the month I spent living with The Family, during which I got to spend time at the house on C Street.

I was invited into The Family by a man who had dropped everything and moved to Washington to work with them. While he was there, his fiancee was raped. He wanted to jump on the next airplane to be with her, and his brothers in Christ decided to exercise their veto power. They said, “What was your fiancee doing in a bar without you? Perhaps this was God’s way of telling you that you are not supposed to be with this woman.”

They called her a Jezebel. They told him, “You are not to go and see your fiancee.”

Thank God this man did not listen, broke with The Family and went to his fiancee.

Berns: How important is it for Nevadans to know that Ensign belongs to what you call a cult, as something that has an elitist, fundamentalist approach to life where they bring peer pressure, not just on his personal decisions, but in some cases, his public policy decisions?

Sharlet: I wouldn’t call them a cult. They’re not quite a cult, but they have a lot of cultish tendencies.

When you vote for someone, you want to know that they are their own man, you want to know they make decisions for themselves. More important, we want to see to what end this group applies its beliefs.

Doug Coe, David Coe’s father and leader of The Family fellowship going back to the mid ’60s, likes to call The Family “The Christian Mafia.” I knew Coe when I was part of The Family. He explained what it means to be a chosen politician.

Talking to another man, he said, “Let me explain to you the concept of ‘chosen.’ Suppose I hear you raped three little girls. What would I think of you?”

The man says, “You would think I was awful, a monster.”

And Doug Coe said, “No, I would not, because you’re chosen, and when you’re chosen, the normal rules don’t apply.”

I think that’s important for the voters of Nevada to know.

Berns: Because it frames Ensign’s thought processes, because it help him shape his religious, political, social philosophy?

Sharlet: Absolutely. Everyone is entitled to the freedom of religion. I am a fanatic about freedom of religion. Ensign is free to believe these things, but if he’s going to this place for spiritual authority, he is turning to a group that regularly invokes as leadership models Hitler, Stalin and Mao, whom Doug Coe said are three men who understood the New Testament best in the 20th century.

He means that they are evil men, but what they understood is that the New Testament is not about love, mercy, justice, forgiveness. It’s about power.

I’m saying this not just to the voters of Nevada, but to all the Christian conservatives in Nevada who voted for Ensign because he presented himself as a Christian. Perhaps they would like to know what he means by Christian.

Does he read the New Testament and think it is only about power, and then does he apply that in the world?

One of the things that has come out is that when we look at Ensign’s travel records and Coburn’s travel records, we find them traveling around the world, doing official government business on The Family dime.

In other words, they’re representing U.S. interests, but they are going overseas, paid for by The Family and talking about this Family theology with foreign leaders. That becomes almost a national security issue.

Doug Coe in one presentation talked about Nazi Germany and the allegiance many Germans had to the Nazis. He said it was something of a role model for the approach that Family members need to have to their organization.

David Coe, a former assistant to George W. Bush at the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, told NBC Nightly News last year that Doug Coe’s references to Nazis in his sermons were really a metaphor, a metaphor for commitment.

I don’t think Jesus used a metaphor of genocidal maniacs for commitment. I know David Coe and like him, but I think this is where you really get to the heart of the problem with The Family, this confusion over what their faith is about. Doug Coe will go so far as to say that he is not a Christian, that Christianity has got it all wrong.

The group began during the Great Depression because the founder thought that God came to him and revealed a vision that the New Deal was satanically inspired and that Christianity was getting it wrong for 2000 years by focusing on the poor, the weak, the suffering.

He said God came one night in April 1935 and said, “I want you to be a minister to not the down and out, but the up and out,” he called them, the powerful. And God’s going to choose a few powerful people, he’ll work through those people, and those people will distribute the blessings to the rest of us.

It sort of becomes this trickle-down fundamentalism that’s all about the fetishization of strength.

Hitler is not an appropriate metaphor for the teachings of Jesus; neither is Stalin or Mao.

When I was at the C Street house with Coe in a counseling session with Congressman Todd Tiahrt (Kansas Republican), he offered as examples Osama bin Laden and Pol Pot.

These were men, Coe said, who knew how to wield power, and we should wield power that way, too, except we should do it for Christ.

They say it’s the means, not the ends.

But when I look at Hitler I have trouble with both the means and the ends. I think any sane human being does.

Berns: The movement was founded in Seattle in 1935 by Abraham Vereide, a Norwegian immigrant, a traveling preacher who had been working with that city’s poor. He opposed the New Deal, was worried that Socialist politicians were about to take over Seattle’s municipal government. One of the things they pushed for, and you talk about, is the push in 1947 for the anti-labor initiative, the Taft-Hartley Act, which monitored, limited the activities of the labor unions.

Sharlet: Exactly. However you look at it, The Family is effectively a union busting organization. They’re particularly concerned about the Teamsters and the Longshoremen. They thought they were run by some sort of devils. The Family was instrumental in the breaking of the spine of organized labor.

One of the things that makes them different from other Christian conservative organizations, and I think even upset some Christian conservative organizations, is that the issues for them are not abortion or morality or same-sex marriage. The important issue to them is what they call Biblical capitalism, and I think what even some conservative observers looking at them call crony capitalism.

Berns: Does some of the criticism of The Family have an anti-religious bent — in a nation that values religious freedom?

Sharlet: Why is Sen. Tom Coburn (Oklahoma Republican) going to the government of Lebanon, one of the most religiously torn countries in the world, and going as a U.S. senator paid for by The Family — and saying to the government that the solution to their problems is to create more Christian prayer cells, like the one he and his friend Ensign and are in?

That goes beyond the private.

Again, I’m a freedom of religion fanatic, and that’s why, in fact, I was reluctant to even comment on this when it was just on the matter of the personal affairs of Sanford and Ensign.

But it crossed the line when we saw money changing hands, when we saw The Family being used as a means not to provide accountability and moral guidance and advice like most religious traditions do, but in fact just the opposite.

Sen. Jim DeMint (South Carolina Republican), another resident of the C Street house, says that the prayer groups are accountability groups. I think it is a basic truth that accountability is not something that takes place behind closed doors. Accountability is about transparency.

In The Family, you have a group that deliberately avoids transparency.

Doug Coe is on record saying that he tries to make the group act like the Mafia, and he says the more invisible you can make your organization, the more influence it will have.

I don’t know anything in Christianity that preaches secrecy, fetishization of strength.

Ensign, of course, is entitled to those views. But he is not entitled to use that group as a vehicle for foreign diplomacy, and he’s not entitled to use that group to hide shenanigans with his campaign finances from the voters of Nevada.

Berns: You write in the book of some of the members, past and present, of The Family: Sens. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, John Thune of South Dakota, Mike Enzi of Wyoming.

You characterize Ensign as the conservative casino heir, “A brightly tanned, hapless figure, who uses his family connections to graft holiness to his gambling fortune name.”

Why a “hapless figure?”

Sharlet: I apologize to the citizens of Nevada for the description. When I met Ensign at the house on C Street, he was not an impressive figure. That’s a personal impression, and what struck me is that he was not a particularly impressive figure within The Family, either.

One way I was able to tell the story of The Family was by living with them and spending years in this massive, dark archive, the grand center of their papers. You see over the years there’s sort of a model — a number of rising star politicians, good-looking guys like Ensign. Often these are people who do not do a whole lot legislatively, and that’s certainly true of Ensign.

And then there are the workhorses. More influential ideologically within The Family than Ensign would be Coburn or DeMint. Someone lesser known would be Rep. Joe Pitts from Pennsylvania, who is a longtime activist in The Family, and Sen. Sam Brownback from Kansas.

I don’t want people to say this is a “get Republicans” kind of narrative. It’s important to recognize that part of the way The Family has endured for 70 years is that it has been wise enough never to attach to one party, one faction. The Family is in this for the long haul.

That means they welcome a certain number of Democrats. Sen. Mark Pryor, a conservative, pro-labor Democrat from Arkansas, told me that through The Family he had learned that the separation of church and state was a sort of secular exaggeration and that Jesus did not come to bring peace. I’m quoting him, “Jesus did not come to bring peace. Jesus came to take over.”

Berns: Hillary Clinton cites her relationship with The Family boss Doug Coe. She cites him, and Bill Clinton has cited him, as having a healthy impact on their lives.

Sharlet: As does Christian right leader Rob Schenck — he’s with the group called Faith in Action in Washington and is a big admirer of The Family. He says Doug Coe is the kosher seal of doing religion and politics in Washington.

Berns: The kosher seal?

Sharlet: Schenck is a Jewish convert to fundamentalism, a lovely guy who speaks in Yiddishisms. He is a die-hard, militant Christian conservative.

When Time magazine put together a list of the 25 most powerful evangelical groups, Time asked me for my recommendations. I said Doug Coe.

They were not familiar with Coe. I said, “Tell you what, try out a dozen congressmen and if you don’t hear his name from at least half of them, don’t include him.”

Time, hardly a bastion of leftist thinking, put him No. 4 on the list.

You mention Hillary Clinton. I think that’s really interesting. Hillary calls him a spiritual mentor and guide.

She writes in her book about coming to Washington and Coe organizing a prayer cell of conservative women, wives of conservative politicians.

Keep in mind, The Family believes prayer is most effective when the genders are separated. And Hillary’s no stealth fundamentalist by any means.

I teamed up with NBC Nightly News last year to look into her connections and wrote about it with a colleague, Katherine Joyce.

What we saw was Hillary shaving off here and there on issues she didn’t think that the public would notice, trying to win peace with the Christian right.

On the one level, you say that’s great, Democracy works through compromise.

When you look more closely at some of the legislation, like sex trafficking legislation, she teamed up with Brownback and allowed Brownback to redesign legislation meant to stop sex trafficking, to make it an offense punishable as nothing more than prostitution.

I think most sane people know that prostitutes are not the real criminals in this business, it’s the people moving human chattel around the world. The Family looks at it a bit differently.

Berns: Every year since 1954 we’ve had something called the National Prayer Breakfast, an annual event in D.C. It’s bipartisan, drawing members of Congress, lobbyists, political leaders past and present. What’s not known to a great degree is it was The Family and their founder who was behind the adoption of this by Dwight Eisenhower.

Sharlet: Much to Eisenhower’s credit, he didn’t want to do it. Eisenhower knew it was a violation of the separation of church and state, just like Truman, who had refused before him, and FDR.

But Eisenhower is the first modern Republican who benefited from a conservative evangelical vote. Billy Graham, who had been a Democrat up to that point, organized an evangelical vote for him, and The Family went to work for him.

Eisenhower said he was afraid the breakfast would become a tradition, and this is exactly what The Family wanted.

The Family says it will invite anyone to this event. The real action isn’t at the breakfast. It’s the weeklong lobbying session organized around it.

If you want to understand, look at the foreign delegations from around the world. Again and again, you see they send a leader from their country who is spiritually motivated, but it happens to be the defense minister, and the defense minister is coming for meetings with defense contractors, organized by The Family at seminars on how to pursue this business for the glory of God.

Berns: You note that many of these defense ministers are from those classic authoritarian Third World countries: Central America, South America, Africa.

Sharlet: I looked at the travel records of Ensign and Coburn and others who travel with them. As they explain it, they have been going to build relationships with brothers in Christ in places like Serbia, Sudan, Albania, Belarus, Ukraine, Pakistan, ruled by Musharraf. These are not known as great democratic nations.

At times I asked Family members about their relationship with, say, a dictator of Uganda. I would ask, “Perhaps we should hold him accountable?”

And they would say, “He’s a better dictator because of his relationship with The Family.”

They said that of Suharto, too, the Indonesian ruler to whom a death toll of 1.2 million is attributed by very reliable sources, killed with weaponry supplied by the U.S., through the agency of congressmen who thought Suharto was a man of God.

Berns: You characterize The Family’s mission as a trickle-down fundamentalism and then you point to two concepts: populist fundamentalism and elite fundamentalism. As I read those words, I couldn’t help thinking about trickle-down economics.

Sharlet: In some ways the greatest effect of The Family is the influence of their ideas, the elite fundamentalism ideas, free-market fundamentalism trickling down into popular fundamentalism, the regular churches of America filled with Christian conservatives with very good hearts who are democratic in spirit, even if they hold very conservative views about morality and so on.

I saw The Family’s influence when I spent time at a megachurch in Colorado Springs run by Ted Haggard, who a lot of people are now familiar with because of a sex scandal. Haggard had 11,000 church members believing that the most important aspect of the gospel related to free trade. He had ordinary folks talking about getting rid of steel tariffs as God’s work, and they did so, he said because where capitalism goes, God follows.

I think that’s a sad thing when churches have been steered away from their real mission into this very specific economic set of ideas.

Berns: Has there been any blowback on you? Have you been threatened for having lived among the members of The Family and then writing about them, researching them, talking about them so openly?

Sharlet: I first wrote about this in Harper’s Magazine, and The Family responded in a lot of interesting ways.

I had a speaking engagement in Germany paid for by the U.S. Embassy. I got off the plane and my German host picked me up and said, “There’s a problem. Your ambassador has said that he cannot pay for you because you are an enemy of Jesus.”

I thought he was joking. Fortunately, the university picked up the tab.

This happened because of Sen. Dan Coates (Indiana Republican), who was quite involved in The Family. He’s not the brightest bulb on the porch.

What was interesting about The Family is that I’m still one of the chosen from their perspective. I’m a bad brother, but I’m still a brother. That allowed me access to things I might not have gotten otherwise.

So when I was spending time with Brownback, he knew what I had written, but he was certain that somehow I had been selected by God, and if I saw his work close up, I would be persuaded to come back and stay quiet about what was going on.

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